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It is essentially impossible not to love this movie on some level. In an era of Hollywood where getting even a little bit of fun and camp is like getting a glass of water after a long walk through the desert, RRR is like taking a dive into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s got the works: elaborate dance numbers, epic fight scenes, an all-time great bromance, saturated colors, glorious heroes, and sneering villains. It’s a three-hour movie, and I would never say that it feels shorter than three hours, because it is deliberately a whole lot of cinema for a single film. But I will say that those three hours really cook. You get bang for your buck.
RRR is a Telugu-language film (a.k.a. “Tollywood,” based in Hyderabad) distributed by Netflix and directed by Indian blockbuster titan S. S. Rajamouli. It’s the highest-budget (and third-highest grossing) Indian movie ever made. American audiences and critics have eaten it up: it was a minor zeitgest sensation in mid-2022 and has appeared on several critics’ end-of-year lists. Some grouchy observers have pointed out that the rather enthusiastic popular response by English speaking audiences may just be a reaction to seeing Telugu movie for the first time. As someone who has seen not one but three Telugu films, I am, of course, an expert on the subject matter. Certainly this bears the hallmarks of the handful of Indian films I’ve seen, but there is something really special about RRR, even with full context. Every aspect of the craft is turned up to 11 — even the shitty animal CGI. I think it’s hard NOT to be swept away by its maximalism and polish. And, frankly, why would you not want to be?
The story is a little bit like The Departed transplanted to colonial India. You have two heroes, with competing loyalties befriending each other without knowing it, each trying to build trust as a secret agent on the other side. In corner one, we have Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.), the protector of a poor Gond tribe, on a rescue mission for a young kidnapped girl. (They call each other “brother” and “sister” but I don’t think they are blood-related.) And in corner two, we have Raja (Ram Charan), a undercover member of the British police attempting to hunt down rumored tribal rogue agent, whom we know to be Bheem. The story is filled with dramatic irony, surprise revelations, and backstabbings, as we’d expect.
Spicing the familiar story up is the incredible chemistry between Raja and Bheem. They quickly become best bros (their friendship bordering on the homoerotic). The movie’s most famous image comes from the set piece where they meet, a burning boat rescue scene: The pair is each on the verge of plunging to burning death, but by gripping each other’s arms during a perfectly timed rope swing, they save each other. It’s not even a little bit subtle as a piece of imagery. I’m glad that the movie knows that it’s a story about friendship at the core and makes its characters worth rooting. This makes every big piece of spectacle more impactful.
Amidst the decadent chaos are some of the most finely-choreographed and -blocked set pieces you’ll ever see: There’s an amazing dance number set to the Oscar-nominated “Natu Natu”; an absolutely bananas battle scene that involves hundreds of fake animals some used as weapons; a late jungle-set fight scene of two men against a whole army; and at least a half-dozen others worth mentioning. (One hallmark of Indian cinema is to have multiple musical numbers, including a closing number, and RRR provides.)
The big set piece that I think gets a little carried away is a brutal flogging, which crosses the line, at least for me, from cinematic giddiness to exploitation. It’s just not all that fun to watch a man mutilated to near death. But then again, tasteful restraint isn’t the name of the game here, so I accept it as part of the whole package.
The worst part of the movie, though, is an extended flashback, that comes right after the mid-film climax. It plunges us into a slow exposition dump with only intermittent action. The problem is that our blood is fully pumping after that barn-burner that preceded it and seems deaden by comparison. I suppose every epic must have some amount of ebb and flow, but I checked my watch a couple times in the middle hour. I also think the story implications of the flashback cheapen some of the structure of the narrative. If I watch the movie again, I might watch it in two separate sittings: Part 1, up through the big first battle, and Part Two, everything afterwards, because the flashback starts right around the halfway point and would work better as an intriguing film opener than its current structure.
I’m not nearly educated enough to have anything to say about the film’s politics, which I understand have been the source of at least some controversy, enough that Netflix has appended a warning at the start of the film. But I view it the same way I do the outdated politics of classic Hollywood films: You’re not here for nuance or elucidation, but for stories with clean dynamics that the story can pop right off the screen, and it certainly does here. You’ll be cheering for the rebels and booing the evil empire and I don’t think I need to tell you that that’s a winning formula for blockbuster cinema.
The production is all around outstanding, backed with both budget and passion. I love that the film is unafraid of bright colors unlike a decent percentage of Hollywood blockbuster. The sets and costumes are terrific period pieces. The cinematography is unabashedly digital and glossy, but still quite pleasing and well-lit. (I especially love anytime fire is used as a light source.) My one bit of constructive feedback is for Rajamouli to trim the slow-mo during action sequences next time by, I don’t know, maybe 80%.
Ultimately, watching RRR is a bit like going to the circus. While it’s going on, you’re having the time of your life. When it’s over, you remember it fondly. Yet the whole time you know that it’s all a big piece of fabricated spectacle crafted to maximize thrills and cheers. Whether the end product is more satisfying or overstimulating is a matter of taste and mood.
I hope India keeps making movies like this, and I hope Hollywood takes some cues from its success. Can you even imagine an American superhero film that’s this exuberant and fun? I’d take the Natu Natu Cinematic Universe any day.